Japanese food

Guest Post: Learn Japanese Food Through Guru Navi’s Dish of the Year (今年の一皿)

Following on from my post on Unseen Japan, I’m super excited to be publishing the first ever guest post on this blog, written by head writer Jay. This is a great post for foodies and Japanese learners alike!

Learn about the beautiful diversity of Japanese food through some of its more recent variations.
Rights attribution: よっちゃん必撮仕事人 / PIXTA(ピクスタ)

One of the things I’ve learned over the years of studying Japanese is how much more rich and diverse Japanese food is than I first thought.

As an American, my primary exposure to Japanese cuisine is through the small subsection that’s become popular in America – namely ramen, udon, sushi (primarily 巻き寿司 (maki-zushi), or rolled sushi) and Japanese curry. So when I first arrived in Japan, I received quite a shock.

I wasn’t accustomed to the serving style of washoku (和食), where a number of small dishes are artfully prepared and presented. I didn’t realize that tofu could be prepared so many ways. I had no inkling of the numerous ingredients that were specific to Japanese cuisine – such as kamaboko (蒲鉾), a rolled fish paste, and konnyaku (コンニャク; 蒟蒻), a gelatin made from potatoes.

And I hardly knew just how popular Japanese takes on Western food were.

As diverse as Japanese food is, its diversity intensifies every year as creative food bloggers and restaurants invent new spins on old favorites, or adopt Western dishes to suit the Japanese palette. The smartphone app company Guru Navi (think of them as the Yelp of Japan) recognizes these innovations every December by naming a “Plate of the Year” (今年の一皿; kotoshi no hitosara).

In this article, I’ll give you, gentle reader, a tour of Japanese cuisine by way of some of its most recent innovations, as well as some of the tantalizing runners-up. Hopefully, this short introduction to Japanese cuisine will not only help you understand not only the richness of Japanese food, but some of the unique vocabulary associated with it as well.

2015: Onigirazu (おにぎらず)

learn-japanese-food-onigirazu
Making onigirazu is simple, and should appeal to the lazy person in all of us.
Rights Attribution: marrmya(画房マルミヤ) / PIXTA(ピクスタ)

This is one of my favorite past winners, if only because it’s such a great way to remember a Japanese grammatical construct!

Most Japanese learners who’ve been to Japan know of onigiri, a rice patty treated with sushi vinegar (寿司酢; sushi-su) and wrapped in seaweed (海苔; nori). The term itself consists of the honorific o- married to the noun form of the verb 握る (nigiru), meaning “to grip”.

Onigirazu is a variation on onigiri. The word is made by using the -zu grammatical construct, which means “without doing”. (E.g., the –zu form of 思う (omou), “to think”, is 思わずに, “without thinking”.) So onigirazu literally means “without gripping”. And that’s exactly what it is: a sushi “sandwich” made by lightly folding the nori wrapper around the sushi rice, and then cutting it in half like a sandwich. Some sort of filling – egg, meat, spam, or fish – is inserted into the rice to add flavor and nutrition, and to help the dish look pretty as all heck.

Guru Navi cites several reasons for choosing onigirazu for its 2015 winner. First, with an increasing number of tourists coming to Japan, onigirazu is a great way to get people talking by offering a new spin on a traditional favorite. Second, the popularity of onigirazu in 2015 spread beyond the Japanese home, and found its way onto various restaurant menus, making it a new culinary phenomenon. Third, with people in Japan eating less rice than ever before out of health concerns, onigirazu is a good way to encourage consumption of one of Japan’s oldest national food products.

2015 Runners-Up

Five other dishes were nominated for 2015, including but not limited to:

  • Japanese whiskey (ジャパニーズウイスキー). Thanks in part to clever advertising and the resurgence of the Japanese highball, the Japanese whiskey industry experienced a huge boom that continues to this day.
  • Nodoguro (のどぐろ). A well prepared fish makes for a great Japanese meal, and in 2015, the rare and expensive blackthroat seaperch was the culinary sensation of the nation.
  • Superfood (スーパーフード). Given Japan’s health conscious focus, it’s no wonder that foods such as goji berries and quinoa made their presence felt in 2015.

2016: Cilantro Cuisine (パクチー料理; pakuchii ryouri)

learn-japanese-food-pakuchii-cilantro
If your taste buds hate cilantro, then I apologize for this picture.
Rights Attribution: マーボー / PIXTA(ピクスタ)

My Tokyo-born wife, who insists that cilantro (a.k.a. coriander) tastes like lukewarm dish soap water, was probably none too happy about 2016’s selection.

Once primarily a staple of ethnic food in Japan, in 2016 cilantro crossed over into mainstream cuisine. One of the most popular variations was the cilantro salad (パクチーサラダ), which can be made many different ways, but always features a big heap (山盛り; yamamori – “mountain-sized portion”) of cliantro as the main ingredient. But the ingredient also found its way into traditional nabe (鍋; hot pot) recipes, as well as into cocktails and even candy.

The word pakuchii is a loan word (外来語 gairaigo) from Thai (ผักชี). Part of its appeal is, not surprisingly, its influence on health and wellness: the Vitamin K and calcium in cilantro fosters blood coagulation and healthy bones. The ingredient gained such popularity in Japan that it spawned a neologism: パクチスト (pakuchisuto), or “Cilantro-ist”. There are still festivals (パクチーフェス; pakuchii fesu) celebrating the food. (Here’s a video tour by Japanese vlogger Ayano, just in case you think I’m pulling a fast one.)

Video: Vlogger Ayano takes viewers on a tour of a Cilantro Festival

2016 Runners-Up

Some of the 2016 also-rans include:

  • Japanese Wine (日本ワイン; nihon wain). Japan continued to booze it up in 2016, with locally produced wine finally finding respect in the marketplace.
  • New Style Gyoza (進化系餃子; shinkakei gyouza). What’s wrong with gyoza? Nothing! But in 2016 restaurants and home cooks began experimenting with new and unique ways they could make delicious bites with gyoza wrappers. Check out some of the deliciousness for yourself here.
  • Roast Beef Bowl (ローストビーフ丼; roosuto biifu donburi). The classic donburi bowl got a makeover in 2016 when someone discovered that piling it high with roast beef and topping it with a raw egg tasted as good as it sounds.

2017: Chicken Breast Cuisine (鶏むね肉料理; tori mune niku ryouri)

learn-japanese-food-chicken-breast
In 2017, health-conscious Japan fell in love with lean chicken breast.
Rights Attribution: NikDonetsk / PIXTA(ピクスタ)

Sometimes I think the Japanese are just smarter than us Americans. Exhibit A: chicken. While chicken has been a staple of the Japanese diet for years, Japanese cuisine traditionally uses the chicken thigh (もも; momo), which contains fat and, you know, flavor.

In 2017, however, Japan caught up with the West and began introducing chicken breast (むね; mune) into dishes in a big way. As usual, of course, Japan put its unique spin on the ingredient.

Chicken breast by itself tastes about as inviting as a cardboard and sandpaper sandwich. Additionally, as anyone who’s cooked it knows, it’s easy to dry out. Japanese chefs overcame this problem through various techniques, such as marinating the breast in shiokouji (塩麹). Shiokouji is a pickling solution that’s a variation on the traditional sagohachitzuke (三五八漬け); whereas sagohacitzuke uses salt, rice malt, and rice in a 3:5:8 ratio, shiokouji uses just rice malt, salt, and water.

Others took a play from another popular American trend and used sous vide – cooking in water in vacuum sealed bags – to cook the meat evenly without drying it out. And still others just fried the stuff, karaage style – which definitely takes it out of the realm of health foods, but puts it in the realm of firmly delicious.

2017 Runners-Up

  • Japan Tea Sweets (日本茶スイーツ; nihoncha suiitsu). Some clever bastard discovered that sencha, matcha, and houjicha taste wonderful when combined with sugar, fat and flour, and it was off to the races.
  • Neo Sake (Neo日本酒; neo nishonshu). Once facing extinction as a drink of the past, distilled rice wine got a shot in the arm from young sake makers who weren’t afraid to try new twists on old recipes.
  • Cheese Ribs (チーズタッカルビ; chiizu takkaribu). That’s just what it sounds like: barbequed ribs dipped fondue-style in cheese. This South Korean delicacy became a hit in Japan for 2017 for reasons that, I must confess, escape me.

2018: Saba (鯖)

learn-japanese-food-mackerel
“You can’t eat me! I’m ADORABLE!”
Rights Attribution: masa / PIXTA(ピクスタ)

As an island nation, it should be no surprise that Japanese cuisine is rich in seafood. But Japan is also an island plagued by natural disasters. And 2018 was a particularly trying year: from the killer heat to deadly floods, from the Hokkaido earthquake to Typhoon Jebi, it seemed like the Land of the Rising Sun had become the Land of the Sinking Ship.

This year’s disasters inspired Guru Navi’s choice of mackerel, or saba (鯖), as its Dish of 2018. Beset by disaster, people in Japan became more concerned with stockpiling canned foods that would last even if the power were out for a long time (as it was last year in Sapporo after the earthquake, and in the Kyoto area after the floods). Saba is also something of a natural culinary treasure – one that Guru Navi is hoping can be disseminated outside of Japan as well. There are no less than 20 major national brands of saba. Additionally, many small coastal towns are selling their own saba in hopes of helping revitalize areas that have seen their young move off to major cities.

The selection of seafood for 2018’s Dish of the Year is especially poignant in light of the historic shuttering of the Tsukiji Fish market, which just a few months ago moved to its new home in Toyosu. With so much attention on the Japanese fishing industry, it’s an ideal time to remind the world just how amazing Japanese 海鮮料理 (kaisen ryouri; seafood) can be.

2018 Runners-Up

  • High-End White Bread (高級食パン; koukyuu shokupan). If you haven’t eaten white bread made at a Japanese パン屋さん (panya-san), you just can’t understand.
  • “Numbing” Cuisine (しびれ料理; shibire ryouri). Featured in the show The Solitary Gourmet (孤独のグルメ; kodoku no Gurume), available on Netflix, Japanese foodies went wild this year for this side of Szechuan cooking (Japanese: shisen ryouri; 四川料理) that’s so spicy, it literally numbs your face.
  • Made in Japan Lemons (国産レモン; kokusan remon). Tired of eating lemons coated with anti-molding agents used to help them survive the trip, people in Japan helped quell the summer heat this season with lemons grown primarily in Hiroshima Prefecture.

Conclusion

Guru Navi’s award winners are an interesting mix of foreign influence, variations of traditional favorites, and a re-discovery of classic recipes. Even the 16 food and drink items mentioned here, however, barely skim the surface of Japanese cuisine. As you expand your Japanese skills, try diving into a few Japanese restaurant website menus online, and accustom yourself to the unknown terms and kanji you’re sure to encounter.

About the Author:

Jay Andrew Allen is the head writer and publisher of Unseen Japan. He holds an N1 certification in the Japanese Language Proficiency Test, and is currently studying for Level 3 of the Kanji Kentei. Jay lives in Seattle with his children and his wife, Aya. 

Have you tried any dishes mentioned above? What did you think? Let me know in the comments.

Of the dishes I have tried, I really like onigirazu which I first learned about from reading Cooking Papa!

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